In March of last year, I finally had the opportunity to see the long-awaited documentary on Lady Wrestler. First-generation African American female wrestlers are featured in this video, which examines their careers in the wrestling industry between the 1950s and 1960.
Columbus, Ohio, became the center of women’s wrestling during this period. Women’s wrestling began to take off thanks to promoters like Al Haft and Billy Wolfe. Intergender cards were introduced by Billy Wolfe, who held a seat on the NWA Alliance’s executive committee. Ethel Johnson and Babs Wingo were Billy Wolfe’s first stable of African American women. Marva Scott was the next to follow. All of the female wrestlers were still in high school.
When she was 22, Ramona Isabell took up wrestling, becoming one of the sport’s greatest female competitors. In order to stay in shape for wrestling, Ethel and Babs learned some new tactics from their coaches. Their stomachs were pelted with medicine balls for three hours at the gym.
Billy Wolfe wanted all the women to have strong bodies and beautiful calves that fit perfectly into the glamorous, yet muscular appearance he desired. When he married Mildred Burke, the NWA women’s world champion, he initially patented this formula. Bigger promotions still use the sex, muscles, and diamonds blueprint that we see today. The women expanded their skill set by taking classes at the local YMCA in tumbling and judo. What a revelation, showing how far ahead of their time these women truly were.
Women like Janai Kai, Nicole Savoy, and Trish Adora have blended mixed martial arts into their wrestling technique to the point where it’s now considered novel. A lot like the Joshi wrestlers in Stardom or the old All Japan Women Pro Wrestling, these women put in long hours of training in dojos to prove themselves.
The Harlem Globetrotters, Joe Louis, and Ike and Tina Turner were just some of the celebrities that Ethel Johnson and the other women began to meet and interact with.
Marva Scott’s children would help their mother design her clothing and witness her sporting the latest hairstyles. Upon their return from their globetrotting adventure, the women would be decked out in furs and have amassed considerable wealth. Visiting the Nile River, Australia, Korea, and Japan.
Ethel Johnson, Mary Horton, Babs Wingo, and Louise Green all had the chance to be featured in Jet Magazine during this time period. During this time, it was the most widely read black publication in the United States. Surely, this was a high point in their professional lives.
When Bobo Brazil and the original Sheik would come over to their house, the women felt like they were part of a family. These real-life superheroes would have the neighborhood in awe.
Although there were some downs, it was a good experience all the same. Despite the fact that America was still quite segregated at the time, Not only did the ladies have to deal with racial constraints, but they also had to deal with gender ones. Prior to the Civil Rights Era’s big successes, many of them were threatened with death or forced to face the dangers of the South.
Throughout it all, the women remained steadfastly united with their people. They wouldn’t play a show if they saw black patrons being turned away. As a black wrestler, that was a dangerous stance to take because it could get you blackballed. The consequences of standing up for your rights could be lethal. For black people, it’s still the case. When a police officer pulled a gun on Babs, she was stabbed in the leg with a shattered glass bottle in Mexico.
When the mafia requested that Marva Scott throw one of her matches in favor of her opponent and she refused, Marva had to fight for her life in Japan. She couldn’t take the chance of being ejected from the ring since she was certain to be assaulted if she was.
Marva had a mental collapse as a result of all of this stress and was sent to a hospital. We’re now hearing more and more in our day and age about the importance of taking time to look after one’s mental health. You should be proud of yourself for being honest with yourself and seeking help when you feel overwhelmed.
It’s true that these women didn’t grow up in a time when this was acceptable. They were both black women. Nobody cared about their physical or mental well-being, not even themselves. So they had to put it in a can or jar.
These women were called upon to be strong mothers and wives. There’s no time to pity yourself, as baby boomers like to say. Indeed, these ladies paved the way for others. As the story progresses, their children’s faces light up with pride as they reminisce about their parents’ lives.
Ethel Johnson and Ramona Isabell appeared in the documentary, and it was a joy to hear their stories directly from them. It was a pleasure to meet so many eloquent, witty, and mature women.
Ethel Johnson was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame’s legacy wing in 2021, but the montage included another black female wrestler Sandy Parker instead of Ethel. Inevitably, her family was outraged, and they were not involved in the decision-making process.
In my opinion, the women in this film deserve more recognition because they accomplished so much. It is critical that this documentary continues to be seen by a wide audience. This is really an amazing story. These women’s wrestlers have made an incredible journey, and it should be celebrated.
The documentary is now available on Amazon Prime:
Filmmaker Chris Bournea also created a podcast series to highlight more details of these ladies careers:
Want more coverage of The Lady Wrestler documentary? Check out this throwback WWT interview with Chris Bournea: